Kristen Brown, 37, understands the power of a story and how it connects people. July is BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Mental Health Awareness Month. Kristen wanted to share her story, her struggles with mental illness, and how her passion for running and the Still I Run Community (SIR) has enabled her to rise above her anxiety, fear, and depression. Brown started running in high school; she was on the track team for two years and competed in the long jump, 100 meters and the 200 meters. She recalled her coaches trying to convince her to run longer distances such as the 5000 meter, roughly three miles. “My coaches were always trying to talk me into doing distance. I said ‘No way.’ Distance runners are crazy. A four hundred is all you are going to get out of me.” And now, Brown, a mother of three kids ages 12, 10 and 7, is training for her first marathon, The Detroit Free Press Marathon, to be held on October 17, 2021. “I am very excited,” she said. As a kid, Brown says she didn’t realize some of her family members struggled with depression, anxiety and addiction. “Looking back, I realize my mother not only did, but still does suffer from anxiety and depression,” she said. Both her sisters have struggled with depression and anxiety, as well. Sadly, African Americans face several barriers to treatment, including a lack of access to quality healthcare, the cultural stigma associated with mental illness and a lack of representation among psychologists. According to Brown, many older people in the African American community view mental illness as a sign of weakness.
There is this belief that “you should be able to pray that [anxiety, depression, addiction, etc.] away.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I love Jesus, too, but this is a brain chemistry issue. If all good things are from God, then the medicine that treats my mental illness is also from God.” Brown, who works as a project manager, described her struggles with mental health as very episodic. “The first time I dealt with it was after the end of my first long-term relationship in my early 20s.” She recalled feeling overwhelmed and anxious. “It was very episodic and related to the situation,” she said. “Once the situation calmed down, it went away.” However, after her second child was born with health issues, she experienced another bout of severe anxiety and depression. Her daughter stayed in the NICU for a month before coming home. “The first two to three years of her life consisted of treatments, procedures, and surgeries,” she said. “I was dealing with a lot at that time.” Her doctor suggested medication, but because it could be addicting, she refused. “I was terrified to take it because my mother’s family has a history of addiction,” she said. “Both of my parents and all of my mother’s siblings have struggled with addiction in the past.” She said once things calmed down, her anxiety and depression subsided. Brown, who is in the process of getting a divorce, said the symptoms recently returned with a vengeance. “This time, it was severe enough that I was like ‘Okay, I need help with this,’” she said. “It started to interfere with my daily functioning. I was having difficulty doing my job and taking care of my kids. “So, I got in counseling, started a couple of different medications, and started running regularly,” she said. “It has been an amazing process to keep the fear in check.
“It’s funny. When I don’t run; you can absolutely tell.”
Brown started running consistently about four years ago. She described SIR as a safe space. “It’s just a breath of fresh air to find a space where you can share anything without judgment,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about someone saying you did something wrong or telling you that you’re horrible because it’s a community centered around mental health. You don’t have to worry about the stigma. Everybody there [at SIR] is amazing and incredibly supportive. “Having a safe space where I can share is monumentally important to me. SIR does that for me, and I see it providing that for other people, too. SIR creates a safe space for all of its members. No matter what they are going through. No matter what they are feeling. It’s an authentic space I have not seen anywhere else. When asked what her favorite running mantra or slogan was, she replied, “What Am I training for? Life, mother fu%#er.” For Brown, running isn’t about losing weight or getting a “PR” (personal record.) Instead, it’s about taking care of herself and having fun. “When I do a race, I am not trying to beat anyone,” she said. “I am not even trying to beat my last time.”
“It’s about being physically and mentally healthy to be better prepared for life, in general, the ups the downs – the things that you know are eventually coming – the passing of loved ones.”
“I am out there to enjoy myself and stay happy.”
And Just like Maya Angelo’s poem “Still I Rise,” which inspired Still I Run's name, Brown wants to encourage others to reach out. She wants people to know African Americans and other people of color can and do Rise Above the stigma associated with mental illness.